The world of ELT course materials can claim to have produced one of the most notorious text type features known to teachers and learners. I can’t think of any other written English where you’d read a sentence like this: ‘Match 1-8 to a-h’. It is of course taken from an exercise like this one:
Rubrics (or what American ELT writers would call ‘Direction lines’) are strange examples of English and yet they fill our course materials. Here are a few others you’ll have come across:
- Work in pairs.
- Compare with a partner
- Answer questions 1 to 3.
- Match the sentences.
- Write the verbs in brackets in the sentences.
- You are going to listen to a presentation about an airport terminal….
For writers, they are also one of the most notoriously difficult aspects of ELT materials to write. ELT author Ceri Jones comments: “Rubrics writing is probably one of the most important skills to learn: Be concise, specific and unambiguous. Rubrics are the signposts, the scaffolding that holds the material together, and helps make sense of it.”
Consistency is another area which authors can stray from, especially if they are writing a full-length course book and have to maintain the rubric style over many units. That’s where editors tend to step in and save the day. Editor Katy Wright says although it’s an editorial job to decide on the actual exact phrasing, it is the author’s responsibility to present clear rubrics in draft material and to follow the golden rule of one student ‘action’ per rubric. This means avoiding conjunctions and extra clauses in the rubric.
Rubric writing is also a good test of whether an exercise works. Here’s more good advice from Katy Wright: “If the rubric is very complicated and difficult to understand, then the task is probably not suitable for published course material (although might be fine for a methodology book).”
In this quote, Katy raises the issue of ‘voice’ in rubrics when she suggests that a rubric in a student book is not the same as a rubric in a methodology (or teacher’s) book. So how does the ‘voice’ of a rubric change? For a methodology book you can allow for a more chatty, teacher-to-teacher style though still keeping the instruction succinct.
This ‘voice’ changes with self-study materials such as workbooks or online content. There’s no teacher available to interpret the information but at the same time the student needs to feel the voice is friendly. Ceri Jones adds: “You need to establish a personal relationship with the participants as there is no-one else to mediate the materials. It requires a warmer, more informal voice.”
This is in contrast to writing rubrics for a classroom course book (paper-based or digital) which will be applied by a teacher in a classroom (face-to-face or online) and it requires a more neutral tone. Author Ben Goldstein who also trains ELT writers comments: “One common mistake that I’ve found new authors make is to replicate the voice of the teacher [in their rubrics], e.g. “Now, it’s not easy, but where do you think the photo was taken.. go on… have a guess!”. In other words, they often write what they would say to the class. However, rubric such as this “Where do you think the photo was taken?” or “Guess where the photo was taken.” gets the job done and is a more friendly and supportive.
In other words, it’s about the teacher creating rapport, not the course book. Surprisingly, you can pick up a variety of course materials on the market from different publishers and whilst there is some consistency, you’ll also see a range of styles, especially over changing levels. Which style or rubric do prefer in your materials? Direct and impersonal? Friendly and chatty? One teacher even commented recently in a webinar I delivered on this topic: ‘Why do we need rubrics? Isn’t it obvious what to do?”